What has happened in the time since Friday evening, when the SEC announced that the Florida Gators would play Arkansas and Texas A&M as part of this fall’s 10-game, conference-only slate — if those games can even be played?
Both nothing and everything.
See, there’s been no substantive change in schools’ or football programs’ policies regarding the spread of COVID-19, nor has there been any movement at the level above — that of the conferences we call the Power Five while they call themselves the Autonomy Five — of major college football. The Mid-American Conference cancelled its fall season, sure, but that’s just the MAC. Nothing a conference that UCF outgrew does changes anything for the bigger programs with deeper wallets.
But on Sunday night, we got burbles — and then an eruption.
First, Pat Forde dropped off this bombshell: Per sources, conference commissioners were planning meetings “with the expected resolution of postponing fall sports until 2021.”
That sounded to many like the death knell for college football this fall, which spurred many players — most notably Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields — and lesser stakeholders to hold an impromptu rally on Twitter, using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay that Lawrence had previously deployed to signal the deep desire of many players to make a college football season happen.
People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play. Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19 (1)— Trevor Lawrence (@Trevorlawrencee) August 9, 2020
And at just about midnight Eastern, that push took on a different dimension: Lawrence, Fields, and many others simultaneously rolled out graphics bearing both the #WeWantToPlay hashtag and the #WeAreUnited one that preceded it in being attached to player organization movements led by dozens of Pac-12 and Big Ten players that demanded more than just to play.
That graphic’s four-point list of demands is simple and probably entirely within the realm of reason: The establishment of universal health and safety protocols throughout major college football; the ability for players to opt out of the coming season; guaranteed eligibility regardless of opt-out status; and open communication between players and the powers that be, with the ultimate goal of creating a college football players association. The first three are either in progress, essentially done, or fully logical with most major conferences having similar COVID-19 policies that could be brought into concordance, those players who have opted out meeting little resistance from college football itself outside of Washington State’s initial fumbling, and the preservation of collegiate eligibility being something that it would be silly for college athletics power brokers to fight against.
But that last point is something college athletics has fought against, as the creation of a players association — whether formally or informally regarded as a union — would seem likely to create the greatest challenge ever to the amateur model that the industry has been able to use to keep its workers from being fully recognized as such.
It’s not clear whether Lawrence, Fields, and some of the more prominent players involved in the dually-hashtagged efforts are fully on board with all of the demands initially made by the Pac-12 players under the #WeAreUnited aegis — which included such “radical” ideas as college athletes receiving half of the revenues collected by each sport in the conference and ending “lavish facility expenditures” — or the ones made by the #BigTenUnited movement. But they clearly are on board with a broader move by college athletes to empower themselves, as multiple stories detailed a series of phone calls on Sunday night that brought players from all five Power Five conferences together under their new banner — and one of their immediate goals is playing this season.
That is going to complicate this critical week for college football’s power brokers: While their best move to preserve college football as a long-term endeavor might still be scrapping this season or scrubbing it until the spring, they’re now pitted against players whose stated goal is playing — something that puts into sharp relief how fully those above the players have failed to create a system that would allow players a significant say in shaping a season, and how their 2020s have been spent largely kicking cans down rocky roads and crossing fingers for good luck in the fight against a pandemic.
If there isn’t college football this fall — and I’d still put quite a bit of money on that being the ultimate outcome here, as no amount of work by Greg Sankey or Kevin Warren is going to make the daily existence that college athletes would have outside of a bubble meaningfully less risky at this point, what with neither conference commissioner having the capacity to magick this coronavirus into nonexistence and all of the industry petrified by the liabilities it could run into if it forges forward — then the blame will fall on many, many people.
But it’s impossible to see now how it could fall on the players, who have said “We want to play — but it must be safe to do so” in almost as many words, and come together at a moment of unique friction to apply pressure in every direction.
Get ready for some shifts.
Yes, I’m aware that Florida got a commitment from five-star cornerback Jason Marshall on Sunday and from four-star safety Corey Collier this Monday afternoon. I kind of think the potential restructuring of college football is a bigger deal ... and I also got two hours of sleep last night, which helped contribute to me not posting this at 9:30 a.m. as I attempted to, and will delay my post on Marshall and Collier until about 4 p.m. Eastern.